Harvard Law School

Application Essays – Elizabeth Spencer

What Worked for them can Help You Get into the Law School of Your Choice

When I was five, I had a charming habit of running full force into Lake Washington with all my clothes on, whenever I got the chance. This and my tendency to climb any tree whose first branches I could reach tended to make my mother, schoolteachers, and friends parents a little batty.
I have always been independent, confident, and maybe a little brash.

By the time I could use a phone, I had found more ways of exploring the world. I started a professional theater career at age ten. I wrote a resume (I was encouraged by my mother not to illustrate the margins with hearts and happy faces), got myself an agent, and started calling audition hotlines. By high school I had performed in eight professional and fringe plays in Seattle, a small handful of movies and public service videos, and one cassette tape called “Fantastikids” where we sang about the dangers of mean kids and wine coolers. I was rejected over. I learned to eat ramen noodles fast between homework and showtime. I named my mother’s puppy Shakespeare. I learned not to feel dejected if I didn’t get a part.

By the time I could drive, I had to fly to get where I was going. I went to Nicaragua and Costa Rica the third trimester of my senior year in high school. In lieu of calculus, I vaccinated baby cows from anthrax. In Nicaragua I lived in a house with a dirt floor, no water or electricity, and no bathroom (we used the neighbor’s outhouse, climbing under barbed wire to get there), and worked with the family to build a community well. In Costa Rica I helped Dan Jansen, an ecologist from the University of Pennsylvania, research caterpillars—wading rivers in rubber boots and plucking the poor creatures from their leafy homes, I learned I could go anywhere.

My inclination to fling myself into the world has sometimes bordered on foolhardy. As I boarded the plane to Taiwan on a fellowship the summer between my junior and senior year at Brown, I had only a name of a professor who would pick me up from the airport and the vague idea that I was going to Taiwan to study forests and storms. It did not strike me as problematic that I spoke no Chinese, not knew where I would stay the first night there. It was. For three months I would be unable to eat, travel, or do my research without help. Yet somehow everything was fine. I was lucky to have a cadre of Taiwanese grad students who took me under their collective broken-English wing. Hung-min taught me what a night market was, how to climb Syue Mountain, and gave me the essential words I needed: “dumpling,” “milk tea,” and “I don’t speak Chinese.” I helped Hung-min brave Typhoon Haitang for three days to collect stream samples for his research, while wearing hard hats. One night I taught him how to swim. Taiwan taught me dependence and gratitude.

Now, finally, I am learning patience. Working with Native American tribes for EPA means holding meetings where all forty people face in a circle, and everyone is granted the opportunity to speak. It means slow progress mired by past broken promises from the federal government. It means spending the first part of any conversation talking about patents and grandchildren, fry bread, and where we came from. Make the meeting quick; dive into the problem; accomplish the task—these I can do. Listen; gain trust; accomplish the first step—these I’ve had to learn.

To Harvard, I bring the urge to dive in with all my clothes on, the patience to learn, and gratitude for the opportunity. I bring the urge to keep learning all I can, so that I can one day meld an understanding of the natural environment with legal skills, and emerge to practice environmental law. Finally, to Harvard I bring a mean recipe for fry bread, a foolproof way to test the pH of storm water, and a tendency to climb any tree whose first branches I can reach.

Elizabeth Spencer’s writing is both personal, making readers feel as if we have gotten to know her, and engaging, making us want to know her better, she shows, rather than tells, that she is passionate, creative, and ready to take the initiative. While she does discuss her research and several of her resume. Spencer makes it clear that she genuinely cares about her work through the choice anecdotes she incudes. Her essay also effectively uses humor, giving it personality and making it enjoyable for the reader.

Spencer puts a comic twist on all her achievements, but this does not detract from their significance. She seems somewhat dismissive of the obstacles she has faced by humorously describing her inability to speak Chinese and living in a dirt-floored hut. However, this approach is much more successful than if she had tried to make her experience seem too dramatic or life-changing. By downplaying her struggles, Spencer actually shows that she overcame significant obstacles by being able to talk about her experiences. Furthermore, this style makes her seem like not only a successful researcher and student, but more importantly, an interesting person.

This piece covers a long period of time, from her childhood through her time in college. While most essays center on a specific event or story, Spencer opts for a wider scope, which does run into the pitfall of becoming redundant. A stronger essay might offer less variety of experience and go into those experiences in more depth in order to het at more aspects of who she has become.

Of course, the essay doesn’t make the mistake of trying to be an autobiography of everything that happened in Spencer’s life but rather the different stories work together to paint a picture of her as someone who is adventurous and willing to take risks and try something new. Spencer lays out her anecdotes in a clear progression; they demonstrate her growth in maturity and understanding. She learns to take the initiative, to not be disheartened by failure, to depend on and work others, and the disheartened by failure, to depend on and work with others, and the importance of patience in achieving her goals. While this essay is tied together by her impulsive behavior, Spencer makes it clear that she has the necessary maturity and experience of a successful law student.

-Caroline Zhang

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